In Cinderella Man, his fine 2005 account of the life and times of Depression-era boxer James J. Braddock, ESPN correspondent Jeremy Schaap was working with writer's gold, a character with a compelling yet little-known story. Schaap doesn't have that luxury in his latest effort, Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics. Owens is far more familiar to readers; indeed, Owens's story—his shattering of the Nazi notion of Aryan supremacy at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the indignities he suffered in this country after the Games—has been told so often that it's hard to imagine anything is left unrecounted.
Truth is, there isn't. But there is the task of separating fact from legend, and that's where Schaap shines. Backed by meticulous research, he makes the case that some of what is popularly believed about Owens, who died in 1980 at the age of 66, isn't true—including Adolf Hitler's snubbing of him during the Berlin Games.
The story goes that after Owens won the 100 meters, one of his four gold medals, Hitler refused to acknowledge him. But Schaap quotes Paul Gallico, an eyewitness, who wrote in The Washington Post that the dictator gave the sprinter "a friendly little Nazi salute, the sitting down one with the arm bent." The Pittsburgh Courier, a leading black newspaper of the time, also reported that Hitler had given Owens at least a small acknowledgement.
According to Schaap, the snub myth grew out of inaccurate reporting and exaggeration by Owens himself. After originally disputing that Hitler had ignored him, Owens later in life supported the legend. Schaap theorizes that he was telling audiences what they wanted to hear to make a buck on the lecture circuit.
It would be hard to blame him, considering the difficulties he faced when he returned from Berlin. Owens was a celebrity, but fame for a black man in 1930s America was no guarantee of wealth. Many of the lucrative "offers" he received—such as entertainer Eddie Cantor's offer of $40,000 for Owens to appear in his act for 10 weeks—were nothing more than publicity stunts with no jobs or money attached. And Owens's status as an Olympic hero didn't keep him and his wife, Ruth, from being turned away from New York City hotels a few weeks after the Games.
Schaap recounts Owens's childhood in Alabama and his stunning Berlin performance with impressive detail and little sentimentality. In the end he leaves readers with a vivid portrait not just of Owens but of '30s Germany and America. Schaap also strips away the embellishments and inaccuracies that grew like ivy over the Owens legend, and he does so without diminishing the sprinter's stature as a hero. There may be no untold stories when it comes to Owens, but there's always room for a retelling when it is done this well.